David Milgaard, imprisoned on wrongful conviction, dead at 69

David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, is photographed after a press conference held by Innocence Canada in Toronto on Wednesday October 9, 2019. The advocacy group has announced that the country's major federal parties have committed to creating a special tribunal to investigate wrongful convictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

David Milgaard, the victim of one of Canada's most notorious miscarriages of justice, has died in an Alberta hospital after a short illness. He was 69.

James Lockyer, a Toronto-based lawyer who worked closely on the case and helped found the advocacy organization Innocence Canada, confirmed the death after speaking with Milgaard's sister on Sunday.

His loss is “devastating for the family,” Lockyer told The Canadian Press.

Milgaard was only 16 when he was charged and wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of Saskatoon nursing aide Gail Miller, who was stabbed and left to die in the snow in the early morning of Jan. 31, 1969.

He would spend 23 years in prison until his release in 1992.

In his later years, Milgaard helped raise awareness about wrongful convictions and demanded action on the way Canadian courts review convictions.

“I think it's important for everybody, not just lawyers, but for the public itself to be aware that wrongful convictions are taking place and that these people are sitting right now, behind bars and they're trying to get out,” he said in 2015.

“The policies that are keeping them there need to be changed. The wrongful conviction review process is failing all of us miserably.”

Lockyer said he and Milgaard met with Justice Minister David Lametti just over two years ago in Ottawa to push for the creation of an independent body to review claims of wrongful convictions.

“I think David's legacy now is to follow through with that, call it the Milgaard legislation and let's get it passed, let's get that independent tribunal. We still don't have it, but maybe this will put the spur into the Department of Justice to get on with it,” he said in an interview on Sunday.

The establishment of an independent criminal case review commission “to make it easier and faster for potentially wrongfully convicted people to have their applications reviewed” is listed as the top priority in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mandate letter for Lametti in December 2019. The objective is repeated in his mandate letter following the federal election last fall.

Lockyer said it's up to Lametti to “get moving” on creating the commission.

“They owe it to David Milgaard and they owe it to the wrongly convicted across Canada.”